Richmond’s Black culinary scene is blossoming because of chefs and restaurateurs who have fought to preserve their foodways and ancestral connections in the city that was at one time the largest slave-trading center in the Upper South.
“The joy, pain, and stories of our past and present are centered around food. In celebration, in sorrow, food connects us,” said Amy Wentz, a proud Richmond native and co-founder of the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience. The goal of the weeklong event (March 5–12, 2023, https://rbre365.com/) is to celebrate the city’s Black culture and cooking traditions, and to counter economic disparity affecting minority-owned businesses. Signature events incorporate music and art, food trucks, and live cooking demonstrations.
“There was a national buzz focused on Richmond being the newest foodie town to visit. A local restaurant week and other food-focused events that, although they were great experiences, didn’t always include Black-owned restaurants,” said Wentz. “We wanted to be intentional [about] adding to the narrative and showing how diverse and inclusive the Richmond dining scene truly is.”
The entrepreneurial spirit of Richmond’s Black culinary leaders can be traced back to trailblazers like John Dabney, a bartender and caterer known for his mint juleps, who bought his and his wife’s freedom with his earnings.
After the Civil War, Richmond’s historically African American Jackson Ward neighborhood was hailed as the Harlem of the South. Although the pandemic and economic downturn have shuttered some businesses in this downtown district, one that’s still going strong is the Urban Hang Suite (304 E. Broad Street; www.order.urbanhangsuiterva.com; IG: @urbanhangsuiterva). It was significant for owner Kelli Lemon to open her coffee shop and social hub where Maggie L. Walker, a civil rights activist and the first woman to own a bank in the United States, lived and flourished.
“[Kelli] has Maggie Walker on the wall [in a mural] and she talks to our ancestors all the time. This was her dream: to have a space in this area that caters to the community, and caters to Black people, specifically. A place where we can feel safe and welcome and free to be ourselves,” said Mercedes Benson, Urban Hang Suite’s general manager.
Borrowing its name from neo-soul singer Maxwell’s debut album, Urban Hang Suite offers a variety of coffee, teas, soups, salads, sandwiches, and local artisan souvenirs. It’s the kind of friendly neighborhood spot where baristas know their customers by name. That Southern hospitality may have protected the business during the volatile protests that followed the murder of George Floyd.
“We were here through all of the protests and the boarding up of all the businesses around us,” recalled Benson. “We boarded up for a short time, but we realized really quickly that nobody was going to harm our space. I think that some people actually looked out for us.”
Mike Lindsey’s ML Steak Modern Chophouse (328 E. Broad Street; www.mlsteakrva.com; IG: @mlsteak.rva) also draws a diverse crowd in Jackson Ward. This is the seventh restaurant the North Carolina transplant has opened in Richmond since 2020.
“I love the energy. I love being able to be in this neighborhood, with its Black history and its Black Wall Street,” said Lindsey. “It’s cool to be a Black entrepreneur and open up a steakhouse that when you walk in, you don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s a Black restaurant.’ You’re like, it’s an incredible restaurant and ‘Oh, the owner’s Black.’ There’s not a lot of spaces that are Black-owned and the dining room is half white.”
The gregarious chef runs his rapidly expanding Lindsey Food Group with his wife, Kim Love-Lindsey. His recipe for success is offering Southern classics like buttermilk-fried chicken and baked macaroni and cheese, along with more exotic dishes that pique his diners’ interest.
“I think you have to create the menu that everybody wants, and give people opportunities to try [something different],” Lindsey said. “I’m going to put roasted carrots on [the] menu. That’s not for Black people, but they’re going to eat it. And [they’re] like, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t know carrots could taste like this.’ But it’s the herbs, candied walnuts, and spicy honey. I’m [also] introducing white people to West African jollof rice, and they’re eating it, and they’re asking questions.”
Lindsey has helmed kitchens in Baltimore and Durham, but he said Richmond is different. He credits the Jackson Ward Collective, an incubator program for minority businesses, with helping him launch his popular eatery, Lillie Pearl (416 E. Grace Street; www.lilliepearlrva.com; IG: @lillie.pearl.rva), named in homage to his grandmothers.
“To me, Richmond is one of the best places, as a Black person [to start a business], because that support is so deep,” he said.
To explore more of Richmond’s Black food scene, here are five other restaurants to sample.
Mama J’s (415 N. First Street; www.mamajskitchen.com; IG: @mamajsrva): It’s a family-owned eatery known for tasty soul food and homemade cakes.
Southern Kitchen (41 N. Second Street; southernkitchenrva.net; IG: @southernkitchen_rva): Come for the sharable portions and date night ambience.
Croaker’s Spot (1020 Hull Street; www.croakersspot.com; IG: @thecroakersspot): Seafood reigns at this comfort food staple.
The Beet Box (in the Hatch Food Hall, 414 Hill Street; www.beetboxrva.com; IG: @thebeetboxrva): Grab a smoothie bowl and avocado toast.Addis Ethiopian Restaurant (9 N. 17th Street; www.addisrva.com; IG: @addis_ethiopian_rva): Pair a spicy appetizer with a crisp glass of honey wine.